Only a hobo; Dylan’s re-working of several traditional songs, finally rescued by Rod Stewart

By Tony Attwood

I have “Only a Hobo” down as a 1963 composition, but there is a recording on the internet which lists it as 1962.   We know that it was recorded on August 12 1963 as part of the sessions for the “Times they are a changing” album, but was not used.  It eventually was released on the Bootleg 1-3 album.

Now I am sticking with 1963 for the moment, despite the existence of the recording said to be from 1962 because of the sheet music.  I know it is hard to read on the screen but this certainly seems to say 1963.

This page was described in the auctioneer’s catalogue when sold as…

“Mimeographed copy of sheet music to the song ‘Only a Hobo,’ 8.5 x 11, signed at the bottom in pencil, “Bob Dylan ‘63” adding a line from the song, “He was only a Hobo, but one more is gone!” 

We also know that in March 1963, Dylan recorded the song at Broadside’s office, with Broadside then releasing it on the album, Broadside Ballads, Volume I.  For copyright reasons the song is credited to Blind Boy Grunt.  So maybe 1962, but I think 1963.

This song takes us back to Man on the Street  and forward to the Loneseome Hobo and ultimately with a different perspective Drifter’s Escape – in which the drifter, the hobo, finally wins through and those who treat him with disdain and indifference (the cursed jury of Drifter’s Escape) get their comeuppance.

So the hobo is another of Dylan’s themes, closely related to the blues singer who plays enough to earn food and drink for the night and is on once again.  Related to the character in “One too many mornings.”

And just as the theme is very old in music, so is the music itself.  Here we need to think back to songs like “Only a Miner Killed”, or “Poor Miner’s Farewell,” as well as songs such as “A tramp on the street”.

“Only a miner killed” had lyrics by John Wallace Crawford (known as Captain Jack).  A later variant was recorded by Aunt Molly Jackson…

Poor hard working miners, their troubles are great,
So often while mining they meet their sad fate.
Killed by some accident, there’s no one can tell,
Their mining’s all over, poor miners farewell!

Only a miner, killed under the ground,
Only a miner, but one more is gone.
Only a miner but one more is gone,
Leaving his wife and dear children alone.

Here’s a beautiful modern version of Only a Miner

This version by Bob, has an introduction all of its own, and the “1962” inscription.

And by way of comparison here is “A tramp on the street”

And the song, here recorded by the Carter Family which is often considered as the origin of the whole sequence of songs mentioned above…

 

Dylan’s words are not particularly original or well drawn but for sheer emotive appeal within such a simple format it is hard to fault the work…

As I was out walking on a corner one day
I spied an old hobo, in a doorway he lay
His face was all grounded in the cold sidewalk floor
And I guess he’d been there for the whole night or more

Only a hobo, but one more is gone
Leavin’ nobody to sing his sad song
Leavin’ nobody to carry him home
Only a hobo, but one more is gone

From here on the song covers a few more details of the poverty of the man’s existence

A blanket of newspaper covered his head
As the curb was his pillow, the street was his bed
One look at his face showed the hard road he’d come
And a fistful of coins showed the money he bummed

Dylan plays the emotional card for all it is worth in the lyrics, but somehow for me his own versions of the song in the 1963 recordings don’t seem to match in the music what is conveyed in the scenes drawn in the lyrics.  For that, most curiously, we had to wait for Rod Stewart.

 

It is said in some quarters that after hearing this version Dylan went back to the song and tried to record it again, but still could not achieve what Rod Stewart managed.   Thus this recording is one of the oddities of this type of music.  The person who you might not expect to be able to make the most of the song, produces the final perfect version.

The Discussion Group

We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase in, on your Facebook page or go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/254617038225146/  It is also a simple way of staying in touch with the latest reviews on this site and day to day news about Dylan.

The Chronology Files

There are reviews of Dylan’s compositions from all parts of his life, up to the most recent writings, but of late I have been trying to put these into chronological order, and fill in the gaps as I work.

All the songs reviewed on this site are also listed on the home page in alphabetical order – just scroll down a bit once you get there.

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